AP Sources: Gophers set to hire Pitino

Published 5:06 pm Wednesday, April 3, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — Richard Pitino has built a resume as one of the nation’s up-and-coming young coaches at Florida International and bears a last name that draws immediate respect in all corners of college basketball.

That combination was too good for Minnesota to pass up.

Two people with knowledge of the discussions told The Associated Press that Pitino was in negotiations with Minnesota officials on Wednesday, and one said a verbal agreement from him to take over the Gophers was reached in the afternoon. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal has not been announced.

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In his lone season at Florida International, the son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino led the Panthers to an 18-14 record, the school’s first winning season in 13 years. He will turn 31 in September, fitting the profile of a rising star that Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague has preferred to hire in the past.

Smith, who was fired last week after six seasons at Minnesota, was hired at Texas Tech on Monday.

Finding a replacement for Smith, who brought the Golden Gophers to three NCAA tournaments and delivered the program’s first tourney victory since 1997 with a win over UCLA this year, has been a somewhat laborious task.

Many expected Teague and associate athletic director Mike Ellis — two men considered to have strong contacts in the college basketball coaching world — to go for a big name to bring a different energy into a program they felt had hit a wall.

But Shaka Smart, who was hired by Teague at VCU, and Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg parlayed interest from Minnesota into lucrative long-term deals to remain at their schools. Alumni and former NBA coach Flip Saunders turned down an offer last weekend, and the Gophers reportedly swung and missed at several other candidates as well, including Butler’s Brad Stevens.

In the end, Pitino’s pedigree and connections to another top coach in Florida’s Billy Donovan may have sealed the deal. Teague hired Smart off Donovan’s staff, and the charismatic young coach took VCU to the Final Four. Before Smart, Teague worked with Anthony Grant, another former assistant of Donovan’s.

In addition to working with his father at Louisville, Richard Pitino served briefly on Donovan’s staff with the Gators.

“The great thing about Billy and my dad, they’re always willing to give me advice,” Pitino told The Associated Press in February. “They understand where I’m at. I call Billy every single day, almost like I call my dad, and I’m so appreciative that they give the time to try to teach me. It’s so exciting. For me, I can’t try to be Billy Donovan, I can’t try to be Rick Pitino. I’ve got to be my own man and play my own style, and it’s been fun trying to figure it out.”

He also knows a little something about replacing a big-name coach.

Pitino was hired last year to take over the Panthers, who never got going under NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. He inherited a program that was short on talent and long on academic problems, but was credited with helping instill a renewed focus to performance in the classroom during his short run with the Panthers. They went 11-9 in the Sun Belt Conference, the most wins since joining the league in 1998-99.

Smith is greatly respected for his work at Tulsa, Georgia and, most notably, Kentucky, where he won a national championship in 1998, his first season after replacing Rick Pitino. He restored Minnesota to respectability, but was fired having never finished with a winning record in the Big Ten.

Just like he did at Florida International, Pitino will have plenty of work to do at Minnesota. The Gophers are losing seniors Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams from an already thin frontcourt and the length of the search has already resulted in one of the top recruits from next year’s class pulling out of his commitment. Alvin Ellis, a guard from Chicago, asked for release from his letter of intent Wednesday morning. He could still sign with Minnesota.

The bigger priority will be playing catch-up with three of highly sought after high school juniors who all play in Minnesota. Apple Valley point guard Tyus Jones is considered one of the top five players in his class and has drawn interest from Michigan State, Duke and Kentucky. DeLaSalle’s Reid Travis and Robbinsdale Cooper’s Rashad Vaughn are also drawing interest.